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L'Église La Motte, built in 1937, was the local parish that Cardinal Marc Ouellet and his family attended growing up in La Motte, Quebec. It is also the church where Cardinal Ouellet was ordained in 1968. The building, photographed Feb 13, 2013, now functions as a community centre as well as a Catholic church. (Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)
L'Église La Motte, built in 1937, was the local parish that Cardinal Marc Ouellet and his family attended growing up in La Motte, Quebec. It is also the church where Cardinal Ouellet was ordained in 1968. The building, photographed Feb 13, 2013, now functions as a community centre as well as a Catholic church. (Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)

Quebec hamlet thrust into papal spotlight Add to ...

It’s a town of one intersection with no lights, and one church with no pews.

But its quiet could be shaken by an onslaught of religious pilgrims if Cardinal Marc Ouellet is elected pope. With 439 residents, La Motte, Que., would be the smallest hometown of any pontiff in recent history.

There’s no restaurant, no hotel and nothing remains of Cardinal Ouellet’s first home or the one-room school that he first attended. Several years ago, the town’s church was given a new lease on life as a community hall. Its pews were removed to make room for a dance floor, although the altar remains at the ready for a mass, should the occasion arise.

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The minor media circus in La Motte as the conclave unfolds in the Vatican has villagers looking into the future – and the potential of tens of thousands of pilgrims each year – with a mix of anticipation and trepidation.

“We’re trying not to frighten ourselves too much with all that. We won’t know what it’s going to be until we live it – if we live it,” said Rachel Cossette, La Motte’s only full-time municipal administrator.

“For us he’s Marc, he’s not Monseigneur Ouellet,” she said. “People have a hard time understanding we don’t have a museum or something like that. He’s never been about that for us.”

Recent history suggests the challenge La Motte could face. Wadowice in Poland, the hometown of John Paul II, is a small city of 20,000. Even Marktl, the German birthplace of Benedict XVI, had the benefit of 2,700 residents and proximity to the hotels, restaurants and transportation of Munich and Salzberg. Benedict’s first home was turned into a museum and draws thousands of visitors each year.

People in La Motte know their town is unlikely to have the same draw as a European burg that is close to major centres and reliable train service. But even the idea of a couple of tour buses a week is problematic. For one thing, there’s no obvious place to park a tour bus in La Motte, let alone feed or house the passengers.

La Motte sits about 600 kilometres from Montreal and is a bumpy, hour-long drive from towns such as Amos and Val d’Or. Since La Motte entered the spotlight with Cardinal Ouellet’s emergence as a papal contender, friendly villagers have set up catering to feed a few dozen journalists and are acting as informal tour guides as the reporters come and go. But even that is stretching them to the limit.

At Épicerie Chez Flo, a general store and the only business in town, proprietors Florent and Lise Breault were busy helping newspaper reporters from Montreal and Japan find a neighbour down the road who is one of the few practising Catholics in town.

“It’s not easy to find people who are fully engaged in [the events at the Vatican],” Ms. Breault said. As she spoke, a steady trickle of people from neighbouring towns dropped by to snap pictures of satellite trucks and journalists reporting live from the scene.

People in La Motte seem to approach the conclave with the same attitude as the rest of Quebec: The majority have little interest in religion, but they are quietly rooting for a hometown son.

Ms. Breault admits she’s not quite used to her new role trying to help the journalists who pack the church-turned-community hall across the street.

The visitors have mostly been kind, Ms. Breault says, but she and her husband laugh at misconceptions foreigners and even some Montrealers have about La Motte, which sits in a region dominated by mining, forestry and farmland. “We’re not at the North Pole and our Indians don’t wear feathers on their heads,” Mr. Breault said, commenting on the media circus.

A hometown pope could represent a rare economic opportunity but not everyone is thrilled by the idea, according to Ms. Cossette, the municipal manager. Some residents live in La Motte for the peace and quiet. “People are worried. There are good and bad tourists. … Not everyone is respectful,” she said.

Ms. Cossette’s four sons are baptized and have received their first communion, but she doesn’t attends church regularly and says she is “religious in her own private way.” She won’t be getting up at 4 a.m. to catch the earliest vote results from the Vatican. “We all love Marc, but we aren’t any more or less religious than people in Montreal or the rest of Quebec,” she said.

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